INTERVIEW: Anna B Savage

We’re only just over two years old here at Picky Bastards. It hasn’t been very long that artists have been willing to sit down with us for a chat, to open up about their lives and music on this little website of ours. So every time I sit down for a Zoom interview I still feel a stomach full of nerves.

This is a musician I admire, what if I fuck it up? And in the case of Anna B Savage, I was waiting to talk to someone who has written the most exciting album of 2021 so far. What would I say to her? Before I press record I always like to try and have a bit of an informal chat, trying to strike some common ground. With Anna, that turned out to be easy.

We’d only been speaking for about five minutes when we realised we’d taken the same Undergraduate English Literature course followed by the same Creative Writing Masters at the same university just one year apart. Inevitably, the conversation turned to which professor was a sex pest, which seminar leader was secretly taking his students out and plying them with alcohol.

And then I remembered I wasn’t here just to chat, I was here for an interview. So I put my professional hat back on:

Fran Slater: Hello Anna – thanks so much for chatting to us today. Firstly, I just wanted to say congratulations on the album. It’s my favourite of the year so far. I just wondered if you could start by giving a bit of a description of your album to anyone who hasn’t heard it yet?

Anna B Savage: Hi – and thank you. I’m so chuffed.

So, my elevator pitch, which I’ve whittled down, is introspective, melancholic, meandering, feminist indie.
I think that with this album I allowed myself to have everything that I wanted in it – so every influence I wanted is in there. Everything that inspired me. I was like ‘sure, it’s going in.’ And every questioning thought I had is in it as well.

I feel like it’s quite dense, and it definitely rewards a lot of listening. I was really worried because, you know – I have a terrible attention span nowadays and I was worried that people might just listen to it was once and be like ‘meh’…

FS: See, I know what you’re saying. As in the more that I have listened to it, the more I’ve got from it and the more I’ve noticed. But I do think it’s quite instant as well. I think it has grabs the attention quite quickly because it’s different to a lot of what is out there.

ABS: Well that makes me very happy. That’s great to hear. Thank you.

FS: No worries at all. So I’ll go to the obvious question now – how’s it been releasing a debut album during a pandemic?

ABS: I want to say it’s been weird but I also don’t know because I’ve never released an album before! I can definitely say that it feels really surreal and I still don’t really believe that it’s out in the world, which is hilarious because I’ve seen physical copies of it and I’ve seen photos of people with the physical copies of it.
But I don’t know. I was talking to William Doyle about this actually, and my friend Pete who’s in my band. They were both saying that the first time it feels real is when you’re playing to people and maybe they know a few of the words…

So yeah, I’m still over here in disbelief land where I’m like ‘I’ve been working on this all my life and it’s been such a long road’. So I still don’t truly, really believe that it’s out.

FS: Have you been able to even go and see a copy in a shop yet? Or is it all just social media photos?

ABS: No, not yet. Someday.

Also, the album has been delayed – it was going to be released earlier. And in the end it was really annoying because I had this list of things I wanted to do before I was 30 and they all got ruined by COVID. The fucking bastard. Literally the biggest things on the list were ‘play in America’, ‘release the album’, and I can’t even remember the other one – but I was so close!

FS: Just change it to 35…

ABS: Yeah, but then I’ll have an existential crisis at 35 too. So I probably shouldn’t do that.

FS: Well I can confirm that your album is definitely out. That has to be the main thing.

ABS: It is. It’s out.

FS: So how’s the reception to the album been? What have been the highlights?

ABS: I’ve been fucking amazed, to be honest. It’s been… I dunno, it’s weird, because there’s a definite quantitative thing where people are like ‘the numbers aren’t great’ and I’m like ‘okay, cool, thanks.’ But in terms of qualitative feedback that I’ve had…

Well like I said to you before, I was worried that people would hear it and it would be too dense and impenetrable and people might not give it the time that I think it might need to unfold itself. But people seem to actually really get it. And everyone has just been so kind about it.

I mean, I actually don’t read any reviews or interviews or anything like that because I did that with my EP a few years ago and it makes my brain weird! I’m already self-reflexive enough. I just need to get out of my head, not see it reflected back in.

But the Tweets and the messages and the support I’ve been getting, from people in and outside the industry, has been fucking amazing.

FS: Have you not read any reviews?

ABS: No. Sometimes people will Tweet me and they’ll quote a snippet and I’ll be like ‘damn it, I’ve seen it’. But that’s basically all I’ve seen.

FS: So what stops you?

ABS: Well, I think from my experience of reading the reviews of my EP there were a few different reasons.
If they said something nice I would find myself thinking ‘I’m never going to write anything that good again’ because I’m obviously a one trick pony and that’s the one time I’ve done it and I’m a one hit wonder. And if they wrote anything horrible – actually, not even horrible – I don’t think anyone ever said anything horrible. They’d just say something that wasn’t completely nice and it would make me dissolve into a puddle of self-loathing and self-flagellation.

And I just don’t think it’s very healthy. I think it feels like a kind of social media thing. I think none of that stuff should be accessible to me – everyone should be able to have their opinions about me, and I shouldn’t be able to read it. That would be fine! Especially when it’s something so personal to me – stuff that’s been squeezed and pulled out of me over the years and I’m now putting out there into the world. I don’t want to see someone say ‘oh, yeah, that was okay’ – do you know what I mean?

FS: Totally. I write fiction and I can totally, completely understand what you’re saying. I can remember sitting in the sessions doing my Masters and if ten people loved my story, but one person had a throwaway negative comment that would be what stuck with me…

And obviously you did the same Masters as me. Did that play a part in putting you off reading reviews etc?

ABS: No. I loved that actually. And that’s because I would only take advice from people who I trusted and people who I felt wrote in a way that was complimentary to me and my writing, and I’d let the rest go straight over my head.

I think I managed to get to a point where I could see whose stuff was so different to mine that we were never going to understand each other’s work, and that’s fine.

But then there were other people whose work was really different to mine but they were really great editors – and everything they said was totally true.

And that’s the thing, I think. The internet gives everyone a voice that is totally equal and that’s a great thing. But I don’t want all these people who I don’t know to take up as much space in my brain as the people that I do know and the people I have chosen to go to to talk about my work.

Also, I think you can just get totally sucked into a narcissistic grim hole. And I want to avoid that. I think I ended up equating it with Googling an ex of mine who makes me physically anxious when I think of him and realising I didn’t need to do that – it’s the same with reading reviews.

FS: Yeah, you’re best off out of that for sure. Okay, so my next few questions are about your songwriting if that’s okay – because I’m fascinated by it. Now that I know you did the Creative Writing Masters, I might not need to ask this one as much – but I’m still going to.

I think storytelling is so crucial to your songs – especially if you think of songs like ‘Baby Grand’ and ‘Chelsea Hotel #3’. I just really want to know how important the storytelling element of your songs are to you and if the stories come before the music?

ABS: It’s interesting because I think that all of them have their own little personalities, when I’m working on them if that makes sense.

Like with ‘Chelsea Hotel #3’ I knew that I wanted to write a song about how wanking wasn’t bad and about how I had had to learn to wank – because that just hadn’t been afforded to me as something that I thought that I was allowed to do or talk about as a woman. But actually that song took a ton of grafting and I spent months and months going back in and whittling away and moving stuff around.

Whereas something like ‘Baby Grand’ I literally wrote it the day after it happened. By that point I would say that my writing muscle was really warmed up – I’d been writing a lot for six months. I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying it just came out, because it only came out that way because I’d been working so much and for so long.

But storytelling, yeah, I do think it’s really important. It’s one of the things that I chime with so much when I’m listening to music and I think it’s just another potent tool to use.

But I do find it hard to edit myself down and be succinct. So, you know, there are pitfalls…

FS: It comes across, though – these songs could be read without the music and you’d still have a complete piece of work. Do you write the words before the music, then?

ABS: See, this is funny – I still have the same page of notes on my phone that I started when I was doing my Masters. So whenever I think of a phrase, or a couplet, or a stanza I’ll just add it to that massive page of notes. It’s fucking mammoth – just a single note.

So most commonly I’d say I just have an idea, or the first two lines, and then I’ll be playing around on the guitar and if I find something I like I’ll be like ‘okay, cool – I wonder what would go with that from my mammoth note’. And I’ll go through that and I’ll find a couple of lines or a sentiment and it kind of goes from there.

I think that’s where the meandering part of my elevator pitch comes from – because I tend to just follow the songs where they want to go.

But I’ve definitely never been in a position where I’ve got all the music and then I have to write lyrics to it.

FS: Okay, great. Thank you. So another fascinating thing about your storytelling is the seemingly quite random references to pop culture in your songs – Edwyn Collins is one example I picked out and, of course, the amazing line about Tim Curry which I just love. I think they really bring the songs to life. But I just wondered if there is an intention in who you’re referencing – or does it just tend to be whatever you’ve just listened to or watched?

ABS: Well Tim Curry in lingerie is a very specific reference because that was the thing I was watching the first time in my life that I ever felt turned on. I was watching Rocky Horror and I was just like ‘oh my god, what is happening’ – and it was fucking great. And also, I feel like there must be a lot of people who are sexually attracted to Tim Curry in that role and I feel like no enough people are talking about that…

FS: But I think that’s what’s really interesting in a way – because I know that film really well and knew what you were talking about straight away, and a lot of people will, but I thought it was great that you went with Tim Curry instead of someone who might be more obvious to people now. Someone who might connect with more of an audience today.

ABS: Yeah, I guess for me Tim Curry is just factually accurate. And a big part of that song for me is about addressing the shame around these things and around sexuality and who you’re attracted to – and how to express that sexual desire and those feelings.

And I also just wanted to be like ‘yeah, I fancy Tim Curry as a transvestite.’ Because that’s an important part of my personality – it’s not like saying ‘I fancy Ashton Kutcher.’

FS: Ha ha – I’m glad you didn’t go with Ashton Kutcher. I don’t know if I’d like the album quite as much if you had…

ABS: Hahaha! Too be fair, I did really fancy Ashton Kutcher as well. But yeah, Tim Curry made me actually feel stuff – and it feels like that was something I’d never really told anyone.. Because that maybe felt a bit risqué – and that felt like that played into that idea that I don’t wank because I’m a woman.

It’s interesting actually because between when I wrote that song and when that song got released the conversation about female sexuality and desire and masturbation and stuff was about 300 fold more present.

FS: But it still feels like it’s a very prominent and important song in the album and it does feel like quite a brave song, as well. I didn’t really want to say that, as a man. But it does. But I do feel that – and I do think it’s making a point about something important, and something that people do still struggle with. I work with young people and I know that people still have those hangups and are told those same things. So to me that song sort of feels like the centre point of the album. Does it feel like that to you? Is it meant to be the centrepoint?

ABS: I think for me, they’re all centrepoints in a way. I think that in a way the song ‘Hotel’ was the hinge because I was writing that for almost the whole time that I was writing the album – I was working on it for about four years. And once I had got to a certain point with that song I was like ‘huh, maybe I can write an album’.

But there were beats I knew I had to hit on this album and the topic of ‘Chelsea Hotel #3’ was definitely one of the main ones. Writing about how hard it is to write an album was one of them, so that was ‘Dead Pursuits’. And writing about how I don’t understand my emotions was another one – so that was ‘Corncrakes’.

So maybe it’s unfair to say they were all lynchpins, but there are three or four that felt totally central to me. ‘A Common Tern’ being another – it’s a bit more oblique, lyrically – but it addresses that distancing from a certain relationship that made me feel like shit.

FS: Yeah, and I feel like that’s a message that you come back to a few times on the album and I guess that’s why ‘Chelsea Hotel #3’ felt really central – it felt like it was about one person who didn’t let you do things your own way and that that kind of bled into other songs.

ABS: That’s so true, that makes a lot of sense to me.

FS: This is why you don’t read reviews, though. Because you don’t want idiots like me telling you what you meant in your music…

ABS: Ha ha – but it’s also fascinating. That is really interesting to me and I totally agree with you, even though it isn’t something I’d necessarily thought of before.

FS: And I suppose it’s definitely an album which invites a lot of interpretations – which has to be a good thing.

ABS: Definitely. I mean, I’m still interpreting it all the time. I don’t really understand what some of it is. And I remember, back when I was doing a lot of interviews, back before the album was released, people kept asking me what the birds meant in the album. And after like six or seven times of being asked I realised that I had an answer – I hadn’t had a clue what I was talking about the first few times I was asked and then suddenly I had an answer that made sense and I believed in it. And then I was thinking ‘fuck, I’m a fucking genius.’

And really the birds just came about because I had a weird dream when I’d written half the album and the dream version of me said ‘you’ve written half an album, and by the way it’s got too many birds in it.’ And then I woke up and I was just thought ‘I need to put more birds in the album’.

FS: Ha ha – amazing. That is definitely going to be the tagline I use for this interview. Okay – I’ve got one more on your songwriting. So some of the best parts of the album for me are when the songs just go off on a total tangent. For example, the electronic breakdown in ‘Two’ is one of my favourite parts. I think it’s things like that part that made this such an instant album for me. So I just want to know when and how you decide to weave those bits into the songs?

ABS: Well yeah, I feel like ‘Two’ is actually the perfect example of me and William Doyle working together. So I had all these songs and I knew in my head what world I wanted them to be in and kind of how I wanted them to be, but I didn’t know how to execute any of it.

I was bringing the more sort of acoustic side – the warmth, the smoothness, and the velvetiness, and what I wanted to juxtapose that with was electronics and metallic sounds. And I wanted it to be experimental, in a way.

And then I saw Will post on Instagram saying that he was interested in doing some production and to get in touch and I think I responded in about 20 seconds and just said ‘HOLY SHIT, YES!!!’Because I’d heard his music and I knew that was exactly the other side of what I wanted.

And I feel that ‘Two’ really has that juxtaposition. He came into the studio one day and said he was just working on ‘Two’ and was having some fun and maybe wanted to play me something that was a bit weird and see what I thought. So he played me a quite bare bones version of the first chorus and I was just screaming at him: ‘I want more, I want it to be bigger, I want it to be madder, I want it be even more of a headfuck.’ I gave him a push.

FS: Well it works. Sounds like you’ve got a really good partnership there.

ABS: Yeah. Working with him is a proper dream.

 

FS: Great. I need to check him out. And you might be talking about him again in a minute as I wanted to ask a bit about who your influences are. Everyone I’ve recommended your album to has come back with someone different that it reminds them of, but it’s also really unique. So who has influenced you and the album?

ABS: I think it’s probably easier to explain who’s been an influence on me than on this album, because I’m a fucking magpie and I take stuff from absolutely everywhere.

But my parents are both professional classical singers. So I grew up listening to a lot of classical music and we also listened to a lot of jazz at home. And The Beatles. So they were the big three things that I grew up listening to. So people like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and The Beatles. And then I got really into the saxophone so I listened to a lot of Charlie Parker.

But then I also always really loved pop. And I really loved pop vocalists. Now I see it like I was practicing, but at the time I just felt like I was singing along to these songs and it was really fun. And if there was a bit I couldn’t do I would just rewind it and keep doing it until I could.

So I listened to a lot of Destiny’s Child, a lot of Whitney Houston, and Alicia Keys.

And I also fucking love Tenacious D. Like, LOOOVVEE them. And I love musicals. And I think there’s a real theatricality to what I do, that I really hadn’t heard in a lot of music. Listening to Tenacious D really gave me permission to do that and perform that way.

And then there’s Nick Drake, Radiohead, Moses Sumney, Bright Eyes, Joni Mitchell – some of the more standard type people that everyone is inspired by. And Owen Pallett is a massive, massive one for me. I think he’s my longest standing obsession.

FS: And what about stuff you’re listening to now? What have you enjoyed in the last year or so?

ABS: Well I’m not a very good musician – I very rarely listen to stuff. I’m not good at listening to music.
But I did start a kind of music diary back in 2019 where I’d make a monthly playlist where I’d just add a song if I heard it on a TV show and I liked it, or if someone recommended it to me, or if I saw someone live and there was a song that stuck out.

So I kind of just have loads of very weird, not well curated playlists that I really love. Like my June 2020 playlist is a proper banger, and then my July one is really chill. So it’s weird. I get to see these peaks and troughs of my personal mood and what I’m drawing on and finding interesting. They have all types of shit on them.

But I haven’t been very good at listening to albums. I don’t know why – it might be an attention span thing.

FS: I think that’s common now, though – It’s a Spotify thing…

ABS: Well yeah, everything’s curated now. Everything’s playlists. Which is kind of sad.

FS: It is. Have you found yourself on many playlists, though?

ABS: Nope. Spotify don’t like me.

FS: Do you think you talk about masturbation too much for them?

ABS: Hahaha! Yeah ‘If you quieted down on the wanking a bit, maybe we’d put you on a fucking playlist.’
But yeah, I did get a couple of playlists for ‘Baby Grand’ which was the last single we put out, but aside from that no.

FS: Do you think that’s partly with you being difficult to categorise – maybe they don’t know what playlist to put you on.

ABS: I don’t know – I feel like I have one very easy category to put me in. I’m a woman. And there are so many ‘women in electronic music’, ‘women in indie’, ‘women with guitars’ type playlists that I’m just like ‘go on then, shove me in a woman one.’ But yeah, they haven’t done that.

FS: Ha ha – you’ll get there. Okay – just a couple more questions for you now. I’m coming to see you in Manchester in October hopefully. Fingers crossed. So what can we expect from a live show? And how excited are you to play this album live?

ABS: Well I’ve never played this album live with a band before, so I’m very excited about that.

Aside from that, though, I kind of don’t know what to tell you – I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m still tentative to believe that they will actually happen then, because everything changes all the time at the minute.

But when it does happen I can promise you that it will be a good show.

And I really can’t wait to play a song like ‘Two’ live – to be able to hear it through monitors, and see other people respond to it is going to be amazing.

And it’s just going to be absolutely fucking wild to see people singing my songs back at me. I’ve had one instance of that that I can remember where there were two women in the front row and one of them knew all the words to the songs I’d put out on the EP and I played this song ‘One’ and I looked at her and she was just weeping. And I almost burst into tears myself because I’d never seen anyone mouth my words like that before. And I’d never had anyone there at a gig because they knew who I was and not just because I was a random support act that they had to sit through.

So the idea of doing a headline tour and people potentially knowing the words – yeah, I’m a bit worried I won’t be able to emotionally pull myself together.

But I’m so excited. And I’m chuffed that you’re coming, thank you. And you booking definitely contributed to it being upgraded from The Castle to Night and Day, so thank you.

FS: You’re more than welcome. So, this is the last question I have for you. You might not have an answer, people often don’t. But it sounds like you write a lot – do you already know what’s coming next?

ABS: It’s funny – I shouldn’t give off the impression that I write a lot, because I go through a lot of fallow periods and Lockdown 1, 2, and 3 have been completely fallow. But my plan is to write the next album this summer.

And I’ve been doing lots of arty things to fill up the well before I drain it. I’ve been birdwatching a lot, obviously – and I’ve just been doing hobbies that make me feel good because I can’t go to the theatre or go to galleries.

So yeah, I don’t think I quite know what’s coming next – but I think I know what’s coming after. Which will be fun. But this one needs to come out first. And there’s nothing tangible yet with either of them so I don’t want to jinx any of it by saying the things out loud.

FS: And I suppose you want to get out and enjoy the current one a bit before you move on…

ABS: Yeah. Although this one has been a long time coming.

FS: It’s been worth it, though. And for me I’m just really looking forward to getting in a room with other people who know your music and seeing what an Anna B Savage crowd looks like. Because it will be quite fascinating to see, I think – I find it hard to picture. I think you’ll get a really interesting mix.

ABS: Fuck. That’s so true. I have no idea what an Anna B Savage crowd looks like. I hadn’t even thought about that and now I’m even more excited. Thank you.

FS: Not a problem. Great. Well that’s all I have for you Anna – thanks so much for chatting to me today, it’s been fascinating.

ABS: It’s been an absolute joy!

Readers – if you haven’t already, check out A Common Turn. You will not regret it.

Interview by Fran Slater

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